The world had collapsed to just the both of us

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QUANTUM SHORTS 2017: SHORTLISTED, YOUTH CATEGORY
 
I gripped her hand. The world had collapsed to just the both of us.
 
The dissonance of traffic and people shouting; the acerbic smell of smoke were all but a mile away. I could feel my tears racing down my chin, mixing with the blood on the asphalt.
 
Her lips moved almost imperceptibly. She was trying to say something.
 
“What? Tell me,” I breathed, wiping the grime and crimson off her cheek. Her eyes were liquid pewter – did I not notice that before? But now they were unfocused, confused… scared. I moved my head closer.
 
She whispered my name, and then died in my arms.
 
***
 
I remembered we met at a café near downtown four years ago – the kind of place that smells really good, has really fancy tables, and sells really good coffee… at really high prices. Her left hand was holding onto a cup of hot mocha, a laptop tucked under her right armpit. 
 
“Hello, is this seat taken?” 
 
I looked up from my novel, and into her dazzling smile. My heart skipped a beat. 
 
“Y-yes, I meant no,” I bit my lower lip.
 
Her eyes danced with laughter and she sat down. We talked until our coffee turned cold.
 
***
 
Sometime ago, I knew a man named Jean Osterhaus. We worked together under the same project during our days at Softlabs Metaphysics. He was in charge of the theoretical aspect of temporal displacement – or to the commoner, time travel. Specifically to the past. I was involved with the electrical engineering of the actual device itself. Weirdly enough, despite our antipodal differences in scientific responsibilities, we hit it off very well.
 
“So… is time travel actually possible?” I asked.
 
Jean laughed. “You know spacetime?  It’s naturally curved so it exerts gravity, otherwise stars and planets all travel in a straight line. The idea is to design that box,” he pointed to the black, rectangular affair sitting in the middle of the room, “to be able to travel along a circle through spacetime by curving it in a loop, turning the arrow of direction inside the box backwards.”
 
“But what about the Grandfather Paradox? Doesn’t that disprove time travel entirely?” I rebutted.
 
“Ah,” his eyes glinted. “Isn’t that what experiments are for?”
 
***
 
I reached the room. It was exactly how I remembered, without the overhead fluorescent lights and the background hum of a generator somewhere. I had made my decision.
 
I was going to see her again.
 
The project was abruptly closed down when Jean Osterhaus disappeared. It was not supposed to happen. CCTV footage revealed him crawling into the box, and the next morning when our researchers opened it, there was nobody inside. 
 
He just… vanished.
 
No official report was made. The entire experiment was called off, and the results were considered inconclusive. Of course, deep down, all of us knew what happened.
 
I clicked open the magazine. Five bullets. The sound bounced off the surfaces of the empty room, reminding me of the finality of what was coming. The grey, peeling walls leered back at me. The lid of the box resisted with a pneumatic hiss as I yanked it open. I was going to kill myself. My past self. I was going to see her again. I was going to take his place. Was that what Osterhaus did? Did he succeed? Will I succeed? Will my actions indirectly kill me? Was I going to die?
 
Does it matter if I did?
 
The moment her hand went limp, the moment her pewter-grey eyes stopped looking at me, was the moment my life had lost its purpose.
 
I was going to see her again.
 
Was I?
 
I activated the generator and closed the door shut. My hand caressed the metallic edge of the pistol. I exhaled and whispered to the air, “There are only two possibilities: yes or no.”
 
***
 
The sky resembled her first attempt at cooking soup – grey and ominous. I stepped out and wriggled my legs. She was still back inside, taking an inexplicable amount of time choosing a flavour. I nibbled the edge of my cone. I always chose vanilla.
 
I looked across the street. People were taking huge strides, collars turned up, trying to reach home before it started to rain. 
 
One of them stopped walking. He turned sideways and looked at me, as if he saw someone familiar on an afterthought. I caught his eye and stared back. 
 
He was the exact splitting image of myself. 
 
Was he my doppelgänger? “Wait a minute!” I called out. A tiny rivulet of ice cream grazed my finger. She was not going to believe it.
 
I bounded across the street. The man stood still, his face expressionless. He looked slightly older, his eyes tired and his lips pursed. “Can I take a…” I started.
 
His hand suddenly shot upwards. He had a gun. 
 
I yelled and crouched down, my ice cream splattering onto the pavement. It went off in his hand with a muffled ‘pfft’. 
 
And then I lunged at him. 
 
My heart raced. I grabbed his gun hand at the wrist with one hand, twisted the gun with my other, and jerked it backwards. Both of us fell. The gun clattered two feet away. He crawled over and reached for the weapon.
 
Back on his knees, he turned around and was aiming at me. His hands shook.
 
Grunting, I sprung up and grabbed the gun from his hand. Another shot went off to the side. Slowly I twisted it backwards, facing him. His eyes went wide, and I fired.
 
Behind me, I heard my name being called.
 
I looked back. She stood still. The gun slipped from my grip. She shouted my name again and ran towards me.
 
The truck came from nowhere. 
 
She screamed. I closed my eyes. The truck screeched. I felt the first raindrop touch my nose gently.
 
***
 
I gripped her hand. The world had collapsed to just the both of us.
 
About the Author: 
Brian is a student who enjoys research, writing and competitive debating, not in that particular order. When he is not found doing any of the above, he can probably be found lying on his bed, watching YouTube videos a little too excessively.
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